Thursday 28 May 2020

Uncompromising large-scale drama: composer and performers on thrilling form in Adès conducts Adès from Deutsche Grammophon

Adès conducts Adès - Thomas Adès Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Totentanz; Kirill Gerstein, Christianne Stotijn, Mark Stone, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Adès; Deutsche Grammophon
Adès conducts Adès
- Thomas Adès Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Totentanz; Kirill Gerstein, Christianne Stotijn, Mark Stone, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Adès; Deutsche Grammophon

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 May 2020
Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)

Composer and performers in thrilling form in two of Thomas Adès' recent large scale works recorded live in Boston

This new disc from Deutsche Grammophon, Adès conducts Adès, features composer Thomas Adès conducting live recordings of two of his more recent works with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra of 2018 written for Kirill Gerstein (who is the soloist here) and Totentanz of 2013 with soloists Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano) and Mark Stone (baritone).

Adès has a fruitful relationship with Boston Symphony Orchestra, and was created Artistic Partner in the 2016-2017 season, with Adès conducting a range of his own music and that of other composers with the orchestra. The recording of Totentanz on this disc was taken from Adès' first concerts as the BSO's Artistic Partner in November 2016. The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra was BSO's first commission from Adès and the recording is taken from the world premiere performances of the piece.

Kirill Gerstein & Thomas Adès (Photo Marco Borggreve)
Kirill Gerstein & Thomas Adès
(Photo Marco Borggreve)
Pianist Kirill Gerstein has a strong association with Adès, not only was the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra written for him but other works too including the Berceuse from The Exterminating Angel, and the two have performed and recorded Adès' Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face for two pianos (on a forthcoming Myrios release In Seven Days). In Autumn 2012, Adès and Gerstein were preparing for performances of Adès' In Seven Days for piano and orchestra with the BSO, when Gerstein requested a solo work from Adès. It was Adès himself who suggested 'a proper piano concerto'. In earlier works such as his symphony-like Asyla, his concertos for violin (Concentric Paths), piano (Concerto Conciso and In Seven Days), and cello (Lieux retrouvés), Adès approached established genres in somewhat sideways fashion, but in the baldly named Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (no subtitle) Adès confronts the genre head on, in a way few contemporary composer have.

The result has many traditional elements including its three movement, fast-slow-fast form and Adès use of thematic development. The solo part is fearsome and makes full use of Gerstein's phenomenal technique and amazing power (he is a pianist who has recorded Ferrucio Busoni's Piano Concerto, again with the BSO, see my review).

We plunge straight in, with piano and orchestra going at it in a way which evokes concertos by Bartok, Prokofiev and RVW (I would love to hear Gerstein in RVW's piano concerto). Adès does not go for the orchestral peroration and piano response style of concerto, instead the piano is almost continuous and the style fluid, so that in the opening movement, marked 'Allegramente', there are lyrical sections, whilst in the slow movement, 'Andante gravemente' we have tension and highly strenuous moments. The fast and furious final movement brings out, particularly in the orchestra, another influence that has been bubbling under, that of Olivier Messiaen. The sound world is never less than Adès, but there are hints of the older composer.

It is not a comfortable work and for all the moments of lyricism, the piano part feels restless, as if the soloist is constantly searching for something, sometimes supported by the orchestra, sometimes fighting. And there are surprising hints of more popular style which float through the work (Adès has used popular styles in his own way before, and of course Gerstein plays jazz as well).
Adès' Totentanz has fewer clear predecessors, though the work clearly stands in the line of symphonic song cycles such as Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. The anonymous German text comes from a 15th-century frieze of the Dance of Death in the Marienkirche in Lübeck (destroyed during the Second World War, but you can see a black and white version on Wikipedia). It depicts every member of society, listed in hierarchical order from the Pope and the Emperor right down to The Peasant, The Maiden and The Child, all being invited to join Death. Adès' work was commissioned by former Faber Music Chairman Robin Boyle "in memory of Witold Lutosławski (1913–1994) and of his wife Danuta", and was premiered at the BBC Proms in 2013 with Adès conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with Christianne Stotijn and baritone Simon Keenlyside [see review in The Guardian]. The work is scheduled to be performed at the Barbican Centre on 21 March 2020 with Adès conducting Christiane Stotijn, Simon Keenlyside and the London Symphony Orchestra.

The work is not perhaps, strictly, a song cycle as, though divided into sections, it is continuous and I doubt that any single item could be extracted. Introduced by The Preacher and by Death, we then have a series of dialogues, in each section Death (personified by Mark Stone) addresses a member of humanity and the person (personified by Christianne Stotijn) responds. Much of the music is strenuous, vigorous and angular, with the influence of Berg being felt. But Adès keeps a constant sense of forward motion with, at times, almost a dance. And that we start at the 'top' with the Pope and work 'down' to the Maiden and the Baby, means that there is sense of gradual unwinding. There is a terrific orchestral climax after Death's approach to the Merchant, and the music seems to feel as if it is slowly unravelling, the lower instruments to the fore until Death's tender approach to the Baby when, in the final duet, Adès takes the orchestra down and down, and down.

The music, particularly for the baritone as Death, is often angular and declamatory, offset by Adès remarkably rich and complex orchestration. This in itself is brilliantly realised as the work never feels as if orchestra will overbalance singers, yet the large orchestra (triple woodwind, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, contrabass tuba, timpani, six to eight percussionists, piano, harp, strings) is a very strong presence throughout. Mark Stone is wonderfully uncompromising, and declaims the German text with a thrilling sense of directness. Christianne Stotijn has the more consciously expressive role as she responds repeatedly to Death's invitation, in numerous guises. But humanity does not go quietly, so though Stotijn has some wonderfully ravishing music, she too is often angular and angry.

Christianne Stotijn, Thomas Adès, Mark Stone, Boston Symphony Orchestra (Photo Hilary Scott)
Christianne Stotijn, Thomas Adès, Mark Stone, Boston Symphony Orchestra
(Photo Hilary Scott)
That said, the piece feels more descriptive than emotional, and in this Adès is probably following the Medieval imagery rather than later more Romantic conceptions of Death. There is no emotional pleasing hear, and whilst ravishing at times, the music does not quite touch you. But, though we many not be moved we are thrilled, ravished and carried away along this inexorable journey.

Thomas Adès (born 1971) - Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2018)
Thomas Adès - Totentanz (2013)
Kirill Gerstein (piano)
Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano)
Mark Stone (baritone)
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Thomas Adès (conductor)
Recorded live at Symphony Hall, Boston, USA, March 2019 (concerto), November 2016 (Totentanz)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 0289 483 7998 1CD [55:59]
Available from

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